Sound and vision blog

4 posts from July 2016

27 July 2016

Murdered But Not Silenced: A unique recording of pianist Marion Roberts (1901-1927)

Nick Morgan was a Sheffield University / British Library Concordat PhD student in 2006-09, studying the National Gramophonic Society, a British record label in active production from 1924 to 1931.  Here he relates the extraordinary story of Chicago pianist Marion Roberts.

                                                                                    Chicago Gramophone Society 50016-P [W 91729] label [NM, cropped]

Chicago Gramophone Society disc 50016-P, first side
Sets were meant to be numbered, and signed by Marion Roberts,
but after her untimely death were left unmarked
[photo: Nick Morgan]

Eighty-nine years ago, a sensational story flashed across front pages in France and the United States. Early on the 23rd of April 1927, in the Forest of Rambouillet, south-west of Paris, a quarry worker discovered a car stopped by the side of a road. In it he found a man, in the throes of death and holding a pistol, and a woman, apparently killed by her companion’s shots. Their papers named them as Americans: Julian Meredith, aged 30, of Buffalo, and Marion Roberts, aged 26, of Oak Park, Illinois – hailed weeks previously as ‘according to many the finest pianist in Chicago.’ Two days before sailing for France, Roberts had made her only recording: César Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue. I was recently able to buy a copy of this little-known set, which I have donated to the British Library. I am grateful to the Library for allowing me to share its new digital transfer via this blog post, and to tell the story of Marion Roberts.

She was born in 1901 to middle-class parents in a prosperous Chicago suburb. A star pupil at the city’s American Conservatory of Music, she studied composition with Adolf Weidig (1867-1931) and piano with Louise Robyn (1878-1949). For Weidig, Marion and her older sister Stella had ‘the biggest talent of them all’. Stella Roberts (1899-1988) would become a respected music teacher; Marion’s talent for the piano led her overseas, to study at Alfred Cortot’s Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, from which she graduated in the summer of 1926 with the high grade of ‘mention très bien’. While in Paris she also met Julian Meredith, a married war veteran who was studying singing privately. He divorced, and they were engaged, but some time after graduating Marion fell ill (a euphemism, perhaps) and returned home to convalesce.

Roberts was commonly called ‘a pupil of Cortot’, though I haven’t been able to find evidence that she received tuition from him outside the Ecole Normale. Still, it’s surely significant that Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue was closely associated with Cortot. Back home, and now recovered, in 1927 she recorded it for the Chicago Gramophone Society, founded the year before. At that time, ‘gramophone societies’ were common in Britain but not in the USA. Chicago’s, as its unusual name suggests (the standard American term for a record player was ‘phonograph’), aimed to emulate British models, specifically the National Gramophonic Society (N.G.S.), the subject of my PhD research at the University of Sheffield. An offshoot of The Gramophone magazine, the N.G.S. had been producing records by subscription since late 1924, issuing complete classical works, mainly chamber music, for which commercial companies saw no market.

In February 1927, the Chicago Gramophone Society announced its own first issue with the proud claim, ‘This is, as far as we know, the first attempt to issue privately in this country any records that are made for the express purpose of suiting the taste of the record collector and connoisseur.’ The Society’s archive has disappeared, so I don’t know on what terms Roberts was engaged and how much she was paid, but it’s my guess that she was invited to propose a work new to disc, and selected the Franck. The Prélude, choral et fugue, filling four 12-inch (30 cm) sides, was recorded on the 11th of April 1927 by the Columbia Company, which pressed 200 sets for the Society’s members.

Two days later, Marion Roberts sailed from New York for Le Havre (also on board was Wanda Landowska), where she was met on the 22nd of April by Meredith. He whisked her back to Paris in his car and introduced her to his landlady, who thought the couple seemed very much in love. But the staff of a restaurant outside Paris, where they drove that same afternoon, sensed tension between them. Roberts refused to eat and only drank coffee, after which they drove into the dusk. She was not seen alive again. Later, the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune relayed a fellow-passenger’s rumour that Roberts had had an affair on the Atlantic crossing. The paper suggested that this, coupled with Meredith’s reported inability to “settle down”, made her break off their engagement. On Meredith’s body was the ring he had previously presented to her.

Does Roberts’ recording have any interest beyond its rarity and tragic circumstances? I firmly believe it does. A contemporary notice called her interpretation of Franck ‘moving and impressive in both conception and execution’, and ‘the work of one who had an insight into composer and composition and the capacity of finding expression for her understanding.’

Jonathan Summers is Curator of Classical Music at the British Library Sound Archive and a historian of piano playing:

It is difficult to listen to this recording without having in mind the tragedy that befell the pianist.  There is no doubt that this is a committed, emotional performance of artistic integrity.  Roberts manages the structure of this extended work very well and underpins the bass throughout; in this she is certainly helped by the high quality of Columbia’s recorded sound.  Her performance stands up very well to the famous 1929 recording by Alfred Cortot and while his may be a little more rhythmically fluid, Roberts invests hers with more of a sense of urgency. During the chorale, you will hear two offstage noises. It is probable that this second and final take was issued, despite the distracting noises, because Roberts’ execution of the top notes of the spread chords, where the left hand crosses over the right, is completely accurate.  Roberts’ recording may have been the impetus for three further recordings within four years.  After Chicago’s pioneering 1927 set, French Columbia recorded Blanche Selva in January 1929, three months before Cortot’s set for HMV.  In July 1931 French Columbia issued another recording, this time by Marcel Maas.  Roberts took 17 minutes and 30 seconds on four 78 rpm sides, but Maas, in a performance of religious nobility, takes 21 minutes and requires five sides, as did Selva.

Marion Roberts recording

César Franck Prélude, choral et fugue
Marion Roberts (piano)
Chicago Gramophone Society discs 50016-P, 50017-P
(matrix numbers W 91729 to 91732)

Finally, the Chicago Gramophone Society’s all too brief partnership with Roberts opens a window onto a strand of American recording history which, perhaps understandably, receives less attention from collectors, academics and the media than vernacular and commercial popular music. The Society was short-lived; after a second issue, two discs of songs by Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss and John Alden Carpenter, little is known of its activities. Other American classical subscription labels followed, such as The Friends of Recorded Music, whose output I have recently catalogued, and Henry Cowell’s better-documented New Music Quarterly Recordings. They too, like Marion Roberts, can be celebrated and enjoyed as part of America’s musical heritage.

Steffano Marion Roberts Chicago Sunday Tribune, VolLXXXVI No17, Sunday 24 April 1927, Final Edition, p6


My thanks go to discographer Michael H. Gray, for ascertaining the recording’s date and take numbers (-2, -2, -1, -2); and to Professor Judith Tick, whose authoritative biography Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music, New York / Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, contains valuable information about Roberts, who was Crawford’s fellow-student.


11 July 2016

Embedded Live

Since autumn 2015, the British Library Sound Archive has hosted Aleks Kolkowski and Larry Achiampong as composers in residence through Sound & Music's Embedded Residency scheme. Larry and Aleks will be performing live on Tuesday 12 July at 18:30 as a way of showcasing their progress in the first half of the residency. You can book your free tickets here but space is limited!

Embedded is a Sound and Music creative development programme funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the PRS for Music Foundation which places composers from a range of disciplines into extended relationships with leading national organisations.

The 12 month residency is an ideal duration for the British Library Sound Archive to host artists, allowing them to engage with the rhythm of the archive, far from the immediacy with which the digital domain has accustomed us to consuming music. In an archive, the journey a listener takes with a sound recording – often on an analogue carrier – can be as long and circuitous as the initial route taken to make the recording.

In their collaborative live performance, Larry and Aleks will draw upon their respective explorations of the sound collections whilst also demonstrating historic sound recording formats, such as wax cylinders, 78rpm, acetate and vinyl records on phonographs and gramophones in combination with contemporary beat making machines and electro-acoustic manipulations.


The artists have seen what takes place 'behind the scenes' during their residency at the sound archive


During the residency, Aleks Kolkowski has been focussing on early cylinder recordings and the Bishop Collection, which gathers the sound effects made for theatre by the Bishop Sound and Electrical Company which operated in Soho during the the 1940s and ‘50s. Kolkowski’s work engages with Save our Sounds, the Library's programme to preserve the nation's sound heritage by playfully employing analogue technology and obsolete formats in a contemporary setting. His impressions about creating work within the sound archive give us some insight into what sorts of sounds and artefacts he has been exposed to:

I was prepared for the vastness of the sound collections and familiar with some of the categories but there are always plenty of surprises, many brought to light by the curators. The quantity of home recordings, for instance, dating back to the early 1900s on cylinders is very impressive and are a delight to listen too, as are the domestic open reel magnetic tapes and acetate discs from the 1950s such as the A.W.E. Perkins Collection. To listen to these voices and sounds from the past is to experience social history brought alive. I am also very taken with the large collection of broken records that brings out both the audio archaeologist and the hands-on experimenter in me. I would love to spend time piecing these rare recordings back together and rescuing their sounds, or playfully rearranging them in the style of Milan Knízák’s Broken Music.

Larry Achiampong, an artist with a background in visual arts, has been developing a new body of work stemming from two previous projects, which explore his Ghanaian heritage. ‘Meh Mogya’, which means 'my blood' in Twi, a Ghanaian language, and ‘More Mogya’, meaning ‘more blood’, are the origin for his current exploration of field recordings from wider West Africa. He was particularly inspired by the selection of music present in the recent British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song and will be re-mixing excerpts in his performance. As part of his residency, Larry participated in Ghana Beats, one of the ‘Late at the British Library’ events alongside artists such as Yaaba Funk and Volta 45.


The Swiss-made "Mikiphone", patented in 1924, is the smallest talking machine ever placed on the market and is part of the sound archive's artefact collection


Beyond Embedded, the sound archive is committed to supporting the creation of new work by artists, composers, academics, record labels, and curators. Through annual opportunities such as the Edison Fellowship or one-off commissions, we guide listeners through our collections and enable new research and creative practices, such as with Hidden Traces. This installation functions as an audio map of the Kings Cross area, layering interviews with local residents and archival recordings from King’s Cross Voices interviews to create a narrated journey that reveals how the area has changed. Realised by choreographer and urbanist Gabriele Reuter and sound designer Mattef Kuhlmey, it was commissioned by The Place and supported by the British Library.

The British Library Sound Archive has been pivotal to various artistic productions since its origins in 1955 as the British Institute of Recorded Sound, including Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1983, Martin Scorsese discussed ideas for the musical soundtrack of his film with musician Peter Gabriel, who recently described how the National Sound Archive was crucial to the creation of this soundtrack –

In my research for Passion, many people mentioned the wonderful resources in the NSA (National Sound Archive) and in particular introduced me to Lucy Duran, who both understood what I was hoping to achieve and made lots of great suggestions. Scorsese had asked for a new type of score that was neither ancient nor modern, that was not a pastiche but had clear references to the region, traditions and atmospheres, but was in itself a living thing. 

The soundtrack, which was further developed and released as the album Passion on his record label Real World Records in 1989, brought together Middle Eastern and North African traditions and included appearances by musicians like Baaba Maal, Jon Hassell, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bill Cobham who were just becoming big names in the world music genre.

Peter Gabriel’s creative process for the soundtrack and album is captured in a compilation record entitled Passion – Sources, which was released shortly after Passion, also by Real World Records. This album includes the “sources of inspiration” – some of the recordings of traditional music he listened to at the National Sound Archive alongside location recordings made during the filming process. For Gabriel, the archive is still a relevant source of inspiration: “There is so much great stuff there, most of which you can’t reach by googling.”

The inexhaustibility of the archive makes it an ideal setting for creation, limited only by the time and patience it can take to search and listen through the sound recordings available. Through the Embedded residency the Sound Archive is able to support the creative process of contemporary artists, acknowledging the ways in which past works can be explicitly influential. The mobile process of creating original work is given new possibilities within the archive, a unique opportunity to work amongst one’s sources, and engage with them in greater depth. As the sound recordings in the archive are re-contextualised into new events and compositions, their meaning is extended and their historicity brought into the present.

08 July 2016

'The future looks very good' - the early days of penicillin

Alexis Bennett is an Edison Fellow at the British Library Sound Archive, and is currently completing his PhD in music at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is an Associate Lecturer. He is also a composer and performer.  Here he takes a diversion, and writes about two lacquer discs that he and his family donated to the Sound Archive, that provide a glimpse into a moment in medical history. 

Returning to the family home in South London for Christmas last year, I did the usual trawl through my parents’ collection of old vinyl. Among the Beatles and the Bob Dylan, the Bothy Band and the Brahms, I found two unusually heavy discs with pencilled handwriting on BBC labels. I had been an Edison Fellow at the British Library for a few months already, so I knew what I had stumbled across. These were lacquers, unique recordings made by the BBC for broadcast at a later date. Before the use of magnetic tape, recording was achieved by cutting direct to blank lacquer discs, but they were also used widely to archive radio broadcast material, so many lacquers that survive contain interviews or live music that was broadcast.

One of the discs, dated 26 September 1945, is labelled “ORIGIN: St. Mary’s - TITLE: Dr Dooley / Penicillin”.  The other reads, “TITLE: Irish Song – SUBTITLE: MacNamara’s Band – ARTISTS: St. Mary’s Hospital RC.” It was clear that these discs related to my late grandfather, Dr Denis Dooley (1913-2010) who at one time was given the rather curious title of ‘Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy’.  He worked as a doctor and medical researcher in London during the Second World War, notably under Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. Fleming had made his historic discovery in 1928, but continued developing it for many years, hiring assistants like my grandfather along the way.

The first recording contains a short interview (duration 00:01:43) with my grandfather on the subject of the development of penicillin, and in it he gives his thoughts on how he and his colleagues decide to whom it should be given, and on its future. The interview, recorded shortly after the end of the war, is a fascinating snapshot of the beginnings of the use of antibiotics in medicine.












MLO2924 Penicillin Dr Dooley

A transcript can be read below:

Interviewer: Only recently has it been possible for civilian cases to be treated in this country with penicillin. We’ve brought the microphone today to St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where penicillin was first discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming, in the laboratories here. And here beside me is Sir Alexander’s first assistant Dr Dooley, who is now the penicillin registrar of the hospital. Dr Dooley, is there enough penicillin to go round now?

Dooley: Well, frankly, there is not, really. There’s enough for the hospitals, for the really sick patients in hospitals, but if the general practitioner wants any for example, he’s got to come and ask for it. And he can’t just ask for it, he has to give us the particulars of the case, and then we consider whether it’s suitable for penicillin therapy.

Interviewer: Yes I see, so that there’s no wastage.

Dooley: That’s the main thing.

Interviewer: Of course penicillin is entirely government controlled isn’t it? How is it allocated to you?

Dooley: Well we get it direct from one of the ministries, the Ministry of Health I believe. And they also supply it to the other large hospitals, and we supply it to the small hospitals from here.

Interviewer: From here, I see. And what about the future?

Dooley: Well the future looks very good. The factories now producing it are producing a lot more, and there is a large hospital – a large factory in the north of England which is being –

Interviewer: Built…

Dooley: Built now…

Interviewer: Amongst the many others I suppose.

Dooley: Oh yes, there’s lots more going up and down the country.

Interviewer: And you think we’ll be alright?

Dooley: Oh, I’m sure we will.

Interviewer: Thank you very much.


Denis Dooley


The second disc is a fairly ramshackle recording of a well-known Irish song, MacNamara’s Band, sung by a group of apparent non-musicians who were presumably St Mary’s personnel, including my grandfather. There might be more to their choice of song than its popularity. The historical MacNamara’s Band was formed by four brothers in the Parish of St Mary’s, Limerick, where some members of my family still live. My grandfather might have known the origin of the song, and – being the kind of person who was interested in making connections like this – might have enjoyed the fact that the eponymous band was formed in a place called St Mary’s.

MLO 1189 MacNamara's Band


Hidden Traces. A sound walk

Opening this Saturday 9 July, Hidden Traces is a new sound installation by Gabriele Reuter and Mattef Kuhlmey. It takes the listener through a promenade of voices on the streets around The Place, the dance venue just off Euston Road, London.

A combination of sound choreography, urban history and oral reminiscences of childhood and everyday life in the local area, was used to create a series of short audio plays, which have been placed on listening points on and around the buildings and streets surrounding The Place.

For Gabriele Reuter, understanding city planning and the way the cities are constructed is very much related to understanding space and choreography. In this context there is no dance; here, choreography is about arranging memories in time and space.

Gabriele ReuterGabriele Reuter (on the right) with interviewee Emma Coates from Wallace Space. 

Gabriele is a choreographer, dancer and urban historian. She works in Berlin and Nottingham and trained at The Place where she has presented many of her works over the past ten years. She collaborates regularly with sound designer, artist and composer Mattef Kuhlmey.

Hidden Traces has been commissioned by The Place and supported by the British Library. The sound journey has been inspired by interviews with local residents made for the project, and archival recordings from King’s Cross Voices interviews, courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.

Experiencing Hidden Traces is free but booking is essential through The Place box office. On collection of your ticket you will be given a map showing the different listening stations, a pair of headphones and a mp3 player. The order of the listening journey is up to each individual listener.

The project has amassed a legacy of audio interviews with local residents, plus sound pieces composed from the fieldwork materials, and a short video interview with Gabrielle talking about the connections between choreography, urban history, memories and the use of dance as a discipline to engage with communities. All the recordings will be archived and eventually made available to listen to at the British Library.

Hidden Traces runs from Sat 9 - Sat 16 July, 10am - 5pm. Please come along for a unique experience.